David has been a journalist, non-fiction author and social commentator for more than four decades. He has written for the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Saturday Paper, The Guardian and The Monthly, and received three Walkley Awards and the Victorian Premier's Literary Award.
His books include My Country (2018), Panic (2011), Dark Victory (with Marian Wilkinson in 2004), The High Price of Heaven (2000) and Patrick White: A Life (1991). He has also written six Quarterly Essays: The White Queen (2017), Faction Man (2015), The Prince (2013), Political Animal (2012), Power Trip (2010) and His Master’s Voice (2007).
Previously David served as editor of the National Times, reporter for Four Corners and presenter of the ABC’s Media Watch. He has been awarded Honorary Doctor of Letters from both the University of Sydney and the University of Newcastle, as well as an Honorary Fellowship in the Australian Academy of Humanities.
Astrid: David Marr, welcome to The Garret.
David: Thank you.
Astrid: David, you are a highly awarded journalist and writer. Over a career of 45 years you have, in that time, won the New South Wales Premier's Literary Award, the Victorian Premier's Literary Award. You've received several Walkley Awards and, if I did my research correct, two Honorary Doctorates of Letters from the University of Sydney and the University of Newcastle.
Now, or those people who listen to The Garret, I am a massive fan of the Quarterly Essay series. I have your six sitting in front of us, as well as your new latest work, My Country: Stories, Essays and Speeches. So many questions. But before we get any further, Benjamin Law, your colleague and friend, has previously appeared on The Garret. He, of course, has published a Quarterly Essay, Moral Panic. He described it as one of the most intense things he has ever had to write," and he said you were the one who got him through it.
David: I've no idea how. I think I probably was just pretentiously lecturing him on the great chores that he had to do, and the corners he had to explore, and don't delay writing, and make sure that you have wonderful scenes to write. He did all of those things, but I think he did them really instinctively. I just encouraged him to keep going, because it was not something that he'd really done. I mean, his memoir, The Family Law, is one of the books... It's just superb. But the Quarterly Essay he did was a piece of reporting on some scale, and it's a tough assignment for somebody to learn on the job as he did. And bloody good it is, too.
Astrid: Yes. Now, he also said that you may have ended up in hospital after writing a Quarterly Essay. Tell me how difficult they are and why.
David: Not just once. Twice. Not because of the Quarterly Essays, but just bad luck. They are a wonderful length to write and a wonderful length to read, and those two lengths are very, very different. A Quarterly Essay should be able to be read on a Sunday afternoon, but they take me about three months to write. So, it's somewhere between 25,000 and 35,000 words, but in researching and trailing around with politicians, going to places... At least three months. And it's very, very intense because Black Inc, the publishers, and my editor there... Wonderful editor.
Astrid: Chris Feik?
David: Chris Feik. Wonderful editor. They're bastards, those editors. I mean, my new book My Country is actually dedicated to all the editors of my career. ‘Goads and angels’, I call them. But goads, my god. The cleverness with which they goad work out of people. And I'm hard to get work out of, but I'm terrified of missing deadlines for Black Inc. And so, the pressure mounts and the difficulty, of course, is that journalists are very, very badly trained to…
Astrid: Do you include yourself in that?
David: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Because we respond like dogs to deadlines, and if there isn't a deadline there we can't work. I've got all sorts of projects that I would... I'm really interested in doing, but I never start them because there's no deadline for finishing them. Panic is a necessary precursor to the act of creation for journalists, and it's ridiculous. It's also very, very wearing. There's a lot of panic involved in writing Quarterly Essays, and heavy research, plus panic, plus long hours, at the end of it produces 35,000 words.
Astrid: And it's a very short turnaround that's supposed to be timely and topical to the Australian debate. You've written six, biographies or portraits of individuals.
David: Portraits, yes.
Astrid: Portraits. So we have Howard, Shorten, Rudd, Cardinal George Pell…
David: Not quite in that order, but yes.
Astrid: Not in this order. Bill Shorten and Pauline Hanson.
Astrid: Quite the selection there.
David: And timely, my god. My Kevin Rudd essay went on sale and then I left Australia to go to London to do something I very rarely do, which was I went and spoke about Patrick White at a big literary convention about Patrick White in London. And I was walking across one of those beautiful squares to go to this talk and my phone went, and it was an SMS from Fran Kelly saying, ‘Good thing your essay sold strongly at first’. And I thought, ‘Oh, Jesus. Is this a defamation problem that's been whipped off the shelves?’ And I quickly replied, ‘What's the matter?’ And she replied, ‘They're in there now, executing him’.
David: So it appeared 10 or 12 days before he was sacked. These things have to be timely. And Laura Tingle, my colleague and friend…
Astrid: Who has appeared on The Garret.
David: And she no doubt told you that she was just about to file her recent Quarterly Essay on leadership when Malcolm was rolled. So everything had to be held, and I can't tell you how much I admire the work that was done over the next 10 days to make that essay absolutely timely and coherent with Turnbull gone. Amazing!
Astrid: And Scott Morrison in, which leads me to two questions. Firstly, is a profile of Scott Morrison on the horizon for you?
David: No, no.
Astrid: Are we waiting for the next election to see who we've got? [Laughter]
David: I don't want to be too unkind, but is it really work the effort?
Astrid: Fair call. And my second question, which might be harder. There is no Quarterly Essay on Gillard. Now, Anna Goldsworthy did write on misogyny and Gillard features very heavily in that book, but there is no profile of our only female Prime Minister.
David: That is true, and I wrote a long profile for the Sydney Morning Herald, but there is no Quarterly Essay of her and it's something that... It’s a pity. It's a damn pity. And I don't know how it happened, but it didn't happen, and it should've happened, because she's fascinating.
Astrid: Can you tell me, David, which Quarterly Essay do you most admire?
David: I don't admire any of my work. My work seems to me to be... I call my work, ‘staving off failure’. Some I've more successfully staved off failure than others. I was totally engrossed by the Rudd exercise, because he's truly weird. And what's more, he was one of those leaders who when he came on the scene, Australia just adored him.
Astrid: I had the t-shirt.
David: He was a man of the future. He was a presentable Prime Minister. It matters a great deal to Australians that their Prime Ministers are presentable. He was a breath of fresh air. He was a Labor man, but yet not a captive of the machine. He spoke of fixing global warming. He spoke of the future. He spoke of transformative change. And Australians just loved him. And there followed a most fascinating collapse.
And I'm also deeply fascinated by the character of Tony Abbott. Fascinated by his charm and his strength, and the strangely irrelevant passions that drive him, and the skill that got him there as Prime Minister. I mean, that was skilful. That was a great victory. But having got there, the irrelevance of his passion became immediately clear. He wandered in from another show and didn't know what to do.
Astrid: That knighthood.
David: So they gave Prince Phillip a Knighthood, and a few other things as well. He set off this great crusade for free speech, which he abandoned, and various other things. And he just threw away his greatest electoral asset, which was an undertaking to the Australian people that they could always trust him. And his first budget, he just threw it away. He just threw it away. Just broke all his promises, and you think, ‘Well, you, mate, are a busted flush’. A fantastically interesting character that brings his own career to that point.
Astrid: So in My Country, I believe, in one of the sections, you actually refer to the Quarterly Essay by David Malouf, and he talks about Australia's interaction with British inheritance. Is that the one that you admire, or... I mean, there's about 70 to choose from now.
David: Of the Quarterly Essays?
David: That is one I deeply admire because... You know when you read a book or a Quarterly Essay, that brings together things you've long suspected yourself and you think, ‘Yes! I'm not off my trolley! There is something i this!" And apart from the sheer beauty of his writing, David's argument that we remain in so many ways so British is something I've been edging around and talking about for a long time, and it was just one of the Quarterly Essays that I just... It was thrilling. And he found evidence for it that I'd never suspected and sources for it that I'd never thought of, and I thought that was a thrilling essay.
Astrid: My favourite is Karen Hitchcock's Dear Life: On caring for the elderly in Australia. It makes me cry.
David: Isn't she fantastic? She's just so wonderful, that woman.
Astrid: It's just a beautiful series. David, I'd like to go back to Chris Feik, your editor, who you obviously have worked with a lot at Black Inc. Tell me why that relationship between writer and editor is successful, and what makes that good relationship?
David: A good editor makes you better not by correcting your sentences, but by lifting your game. And Chris is somebody who has, I think, perfect taste. He's tough. He also knows what his writers are doing, and he showers us with links to articles, pieces, books we should read. He's cultivating us, even between our assignments, and I read everything that he sends me as a link. And he's quiet. I don't think he has a temper to lose, but he's steel. And he also confronts me over one of my worst failings, which is I cannot stop rewriting. I always think I can make it more beautiful, I can make it clearer, I can make it more persuasive, I can make it more elegant. And years and years ago when I was first working with him, he sent back something that I'd laboured on for, I don't know, three or four days, and I believe had brought to a peak of perfection. And he sent it back to me with just this message, ‘You have dis-improved this’. I've had that message from him a few times since.
Astrid: [Laughter] That's lovely. Now, tell me, what prompted you to pull together My Country, which is, of course, a collection of some of the pieces… not your longer works, but a lot of the journalism and shorter works that you've published over four decades.
David: It was Chris Feik's suggestion, and I immediately said no, because I knew how hard it was going to be to go back and read old stories, particularly for the compulsive rewriter who always thinks he can see a way of getting that paragraph right. ‘At last! I can fix that!’ But he just kept quietly suggesting it, which is his method. He plants the seed and then he just quietly reminds you that there's a seed planted. And eventually I said yes, partly because I actually did want to go back and read the stuff, partly because I wanted to sort my work and get together, almost for my own purposes, what I thought still had legs, still spoke.
And so, I did it, and it was very tough. I mean, if you've been around as a journalist for forty something years, you've written a lot of words. Now, I'm not pretending that I re-read them all. I didn't. I mean, I knew just stuff that wasn't going to last. But it was a lot of re-reading and a lot of culling, and the culling at first was so hard. But in the end, when at the last I had to shed about another 100,000 words, it was thrilling. It was a slaughter of my loved ones, but it was really thrilling because I felt confident that having done that, what remained mattered. No, mattered is too pretentious a word. What remained still lived and breathed a bit.
Astrid: I've read My Country and I have questions on specific pieces that you did choose to include. But first, a more general question about your career. Early in My Country you include a piece that was originally published in 2004 and you state that, over decades you have been ‘moving backwards and forwards between books, broadcasting, editing, and writing’. The audience of The Garret is very much writers of both non-fiction and fiction, and I'd just like your thoughts on moving between mediums to tell your stories.
David: I've never doubted that what matters most is getting the writing right. I've never doubted that. So, I've had a little career in television and I've had a little career in radio, and my little television career was... It was not a failure, shall I say? But I just wanted to get back to writing because even though you discover in television the extraordinary power of words and images together, it's still the way words work that, I think, is my job. Making words work.
But that stint in television – which I did, actually, as a part-time job while I was writing My Life with Patrick White – taught me how much more powerful language is than you think. That you don't have to overwork it. You don't have to buttress all your sentences. You've got to make choices. You've got to be clearer. You've got to speak more distinctly. All of that is necessary for television, and that taught me to be, I think, a clearer and a better writer.
Writers can hide behind their writing. We're tremendously clever at doing that. There are all sorts of tricks and we can be immensely skilled at putting up a screen of words that we can be completely invisible behind. But television – and to some extent radio, but television especially – reminds you that the best writing is where you speak most clearly and therefore put yourself at risk, but you speak clearly. I think I was a better writer for that time. I was also, let me tell you, a better writer for spending six or seven years in the company of Patrick White's writing, and of the man himself.
Astrid: I have no doubt.
David: There were a few lessons there to be learned as well.
Astrid: In My Country, my favourite section, perhaps predictably, is ‘The Writing Trade’, and in that section where you reflect on words in a piece that you published in 1995, you actually discuss The Hand that Signed the Paper, which is the controversial winner of the Miles Franklin Literary Prize by Helen Demidenko, who, of course, is now known as Helen Dale. You included that. That happened two decades ago. What does that literary crisis, which I guess is the appropriate word, tell us in 2018? What questions does it still raise?
David: That promising and good work can come from unlikely, and indeed unpleasant, people. She was a fake, her book was not. I do not believe that book was anti-Semitic. I don't believe it should've been awarded the Miles Franklin Prize. I mean, that was going way, way too far. But I thought it a strong and interesting and very promising novel. I was never a judge of the book. I was wheeled out by my publishers, Allen & Unwin at the time, to present her with the prize and give a little speech. And then, as the controversy about the prize unrolled, and once I knew that her identity was a fake, that she was Helen Darville at that time, I re-read the book. And certainly the book lost power, because she was not, indeed, the child of Ukrainian parents writing a book that violated the confidences of her family. All of that was fake, but nevertheless, the book survived. And the lesson of it, I think, always is that great painting and music and writing can come out of unlikely and often unpleasant people. And if we're honest about it, we judge by the work and try as much as possible to put the life of those people out of our minds. That it's the work, in the end, that we have to judge.
Astrid: The inclusion of your 1995 piece struck home to me reading it in late 2018 after the Horne Prize controversy this year. I know you've spoken about it publicly, but just in light of what happened in 1995, do you have anything to add?
David: I can understand why groups, particularly groups that have had a really rough time, Indigenous Australians or gay Australians or migrant Australians or... Can say, ‘Look, I am the best interpreter of my experience and I would like other people to keep their hands off my culture’. I can understand that. But it is profoundly not how art works. It is profoundly not how culture works. Culture is a continuous process of theft. I remember being interviewed about this subject by the ABC, and so the Horne Prize briefly rewrote its rules to say that they weren't going to take essays on minority experience except from minority writers. And I resigned as a result of that. So did Anna Funder. And I was being interviewed about this, and a very interesting interview with an American academic who was, God bless him, an Associate Professor of Hip Hop. Not the Professor of Hip Hop, but an Associate Professor of Hip Hop. Very intelligent, interesting man. But I was saying to him, ‘Are you saying that European composers, North American composers with European backgrounds in the 20th century should not have used jazz? That jazz should have been left to Afro-Americans and Africans?’ And he was, and I just was so unsympathetic to that point of view. I got in the car, drove away from the ABC, and it was the last ten unbelievable minutes of Gershwin's ‘Rhapsody in Blue’, and this music is blasting me out of my car, and that man was saying Gershwin should never have used jazz. And I just think it's insane.
Astrid: And of course, the Horne Prize then abandoned the rule change.
David: Oh, yes, of course. And it went back to what it was. And at the same time, I think it's really important to say we are hungry for Indigenous writers to write about Indigenous experience. We are hungry for people who come out of a particular culture, again, just an obvious example is Indigenous culture in Australia. It might be gay culture in Australia. We are hungry for them to bring their culture to fresh triumphs. We're hungry for that. Publishers are looking for it. Broadcasters. We're all hungry for it. But you don't achieve anything by saying, ‘everybody else stay away’, because it's not going to work to begin with, and it's not how art works. It just isn't how art works.
Astrid: You've briefly alluded to your biography of Patrick White. Now, that was published in 1991 and it still stands as the definitive biography of Patrick White, one of Australia's great authors. In My Country, you republish a speech that you gave in 2016, which was called ‘Staying Out of the Picture’, and you actually outlined three rules of biography. Now, many listeners of The Garret do write non-fiction and biography. These are your three rules: Biographers might command the lives they write, biographers must not rob time of its mystery, and biographers must stay out of sight. I'd like you to comment on your three rules.
David: You have to make up your mind about the shape of the life you're writing. And while, of course, you must present the evidence for alternative interpretations, you've got to choose. In the end you have to choose. Not necessarily by any heavy-handed commentary about those right choices, but you have to choose. You have to decide, because otherwise you're just left with an examination of sources rather than the story of a life.
You must not rob time of its mystery. The one thing we all share, the subject for biography in all of our readers lives ‘all of us, is we don't really know what's going to happen in five minutes time. And it is very rarely that the telling of a story is improved by throwing forward and saying, ‘this would prove an error’ or ‘little did he know’. I cannot bear ‘little did he know’. I should be equal-handed here. I can't bear, ‘little did she know’ either, because we are moving through a life which is full of maybes and perhaps, and that's the drama. So much of a life. Now, that doesn't mean that there aren't terrific biographies which start on the death bed or start at a moment of triumph or start at a moment of defeat and work from there. But throwing forward all the time... And staying out of things! I don't care!
Astrid: Now this fascinates me, because recently there is the rise of the ‘I’ in non-fiction, particularly in the hybrid true crime, how you investigate things and your personal reaction to it. I've interviewed Rachel Brown who did ABC's Trace, the podcast and the book. The book does fascinate me and Rachel is very present. So, I'm interested, as a biographer and as a writer and as a journalist, your opinion on that inclusion of the author.
David: Gripping books can be written. Gripping journalism. Gripping podcasts can be made which are the story of a search. Really, really gripping. But when you are writing a biography of a life, save your readers from the homework, please. I don't care if you are standing on the street in Cairo where 40 years before your subject stood and looked towards the hotel. I don't care! Astrid: [Laughter]
David: You've got to go there... Another rule of biography is you must go to all the places and learn from the places, absorb them, use them, write them. But don't tell me ‘I stood there and was moved by’. Don't tell me about your experiences in libraries. The triumphs of research, which are heady for writers and researchers, are all but incommunicable to readers. Save us from the homework. Okay, it maybe took you three weeks to find the document which finally explained what happened in 1833 in Ballarat, but you just use the document. Don't bore me with how long it took you to find the document and what you had to read before you found it. Just use it. And good on you for finding it, but just use it. Don't tell me about your search. Don't tell me about your work. Give me the product of it.
There's an exception, though, to that rule, and that is biographies of fakes. Biographies where, at the end of your search, the subject you thought you knew, the subject the public thought you knew, turns out to either not exist or to be something completely other. The biography of Helen Darville would be exactly one of those. How I searched for Helen Demidenko and found Helen Darville would be perfect. And there's a genre of those searching for the fake biography. Searching for the fake. But on the whole, please. I am in any case, if I am reading a biography written by you, I expect to have a clear voice of the biographer. The biographer is choosing every word in that book. That's enough. Don't wander onto the scene yourself.
Astrid: Which does bring us to your biography of Patrick White. Tell us about the process. You mentioned six years?
David: [Laughter] I realise that I'm driven by the big projects that I do. I'm driven by a sense that there is a subject here which is widely misunderstood that needs to be explained. I have an explainer's imagination. I'm driven by a wish to explain. And one day I was reading a biography of a strange man called Inky Stevenson who was a publisher before the Second World War in Sydney, ended up as a Nazi, a weird fascist who was interned during the Second World War. Anyway, Inky Stevenson, important minor literary figure. And there's this biography, I'm reading it and I discover that the principal investors in the publishing house that he set up in Sydney in the 1930s were Ruth and Dick White on condition that he publish the poetry of their son Patrick. And I'm reading this and I'm thinking, ‘But that's contrary to everything Patrick White has ever said about his relationship with his parents. Gosh, I would love to read a traditional biograph ... I'm going to write it’. It was just completely that. And then it was mostly the next 10 years, actually, by the time I'd finished his letters, and I approached him and I wrote the worst letter ever written in the world to somebody. I took a month to draft it and redraft it, dis-improving it continuously. And he made some inquiries and he decided he would trust me, and the process began. It was a completely traditional biographical process, which is probably not available much. He took me in, I interviewed him. He told me clearly on the first day that we were working together and that unfortunately for me there were no letters because he had instructed all the people he wrote to destroy the letters. And within weeks I began to discover that people had not destroyed their letters, and this was thrilling, of course, because these are letters by one of the greatest masters of the English language in the 20th century. And so, I very carefully kept quiet about it. I kept quiet about it for a while.
Then I was over in England with a cousin of his whom he'd given me a letter of introduction to, and she grilled me and she... In this funny little cottage outside Oxford, and she grilled me for about an hour. It was grim. And then I must have passed muster because she said, ‘Look, would you like a cup of tea?’ I said I would, and she says, ‘Well, while the kettle's boiling you might like to see this’. And she handed me a manila folder of 40 years of correspondence from him. And so, then the next task I had to do was to alert him to the fact that people hadn't... Some had, unfortunately. Deeply unfortunately. They hadn't and would he allow me to use his letters? And that was a huge hurdle which we jumped over, and he said yes, and then what followed was years of collecting and collecting and interviewing him on the basis of what the letters revealed. And it just took... It took time.
And for the last six or eight months, the phone would ring and I'd pick it up and it would be Patrick on the other end of the phone and he would say, ‘When are you going to finish that fucking book?’ And slam the phone down. He was afraid of dying. He wanted to be around for the fuss it would make. He didn't last for the fuss, but he did read it. It was a completely traditional biographical enterprise of a kind which, as I say, I doubt the subjects of today are going to be able to provide. Is anybody keeping their SMS's? Some people I know are archiving their emails.
Astrid: That's a good question. Now, have you read Christos Tsiolkas On Patrick White?
David: I have. It's wonderful.
Astrid: Because he does allude to your biography in there, as well.
David: It's wonderful because he completely, the little bastard, he... What he shows in that study is the importance of orthodox faith brought into Patrick White's life, of course, by his partner Manoly Lascaris. And my biography talks about the Orthodox faith in relation to Manoly, and brings to bear a lifetime's quizzical understanding of the Anglican faith, as far as Patrick was concerned. But what Christos Tsiolkas shows is that ways of thinking and of characters and of situations that are directly drawn from Orthodox faith and Orthodox experience are in Patrick's work and I hadn't seen it, and he shows it. It's beautiful. A beautiful study.
Astrid: Who will you write a biography of next?
David: Well, when I finished the Patrick White biography and there was an agreeable kerfuffle about it and my publishers at that time were Johnathan Cape in London said, ‘Right. Now next, we think we need a biography of Tennessee Williams’. And I thought, I don't give a rats about Tennessee Williams. I mean, I think he's a great playwright and it's an interesting and bizarre life, but I don't give a rats about spending five or six years because it doesn't tell me anything about my country. It doesn't tell me anything about the experience that we are trying to hammer out on this corner of the Earth. And I said no, and waited around for some Australian inspiration to strike, and it hasn't, and it's been a great puzzle in my life. I've constantly written biographical portraits, profiles in newspapers and then Quarterly Essays. But the big one, there's no one yet, and I hope perhaps there's still time, that I feel has this combination of being worth it, misunderstood, needing to be explained, and that hasn't happened. But I'm ever-alert to it.
Astrid: Will you ever write an auto-biography?
David: I don't think so. In My Country there are some essays I've written and some speeches I've written about my family and about growing up. Maybe a little bit more in that area, because the world in which I grew up has disappeared. That middle-class world of the North Shore in Sydney has just disappeared, and it was strange and it was boring in many ways, but it was also beautiful in some ways and gone. And I'm a bit intrigued by it.
There's another wonderful principle of David Malouf's, who is the wisest man in literature in this country and in many others as well, is that we're particularly fascinated as human beings by the years just before we're born and that they are the hardest to enter. They fascinate us. They're very, very hard to enter. And I was born a couple of years after the war ended, and yet, it seemed to me growing up that the war was a thing of the distant past. And time now plays all those tricks of childhood seeming to be ever-present, I mean, because our childhoods are always with us. And that time and that place in which I grew up, amongst the gumtrees in Sydney's North Shore, it's just gone. And look, I'm a little intrigued by that, but I would still love a great life to stride in to my life and for me to decide, okay. Because I just love biography.
And biography in this country at the moment is going through a great time. Judith Brett’s Alfred Deakin is a great biography. So is Julia Baird's Victoria. A great biography. And we're just churning them out, and I wouldn't mind being back in the game. But right now, the big life has yet to really get me excited.
Astrid: I do hope that you find that inspiration. You made me laugh at various points in My Country.
David: I hope so. Efforts were made.
Astrid: You did. They were successful. Now I'm an alumni of Sydney University and I found this quote from a piece you wrote in 2013 amusing. And I quote, ‘I found I was not a writer of fiction, having abandoned after only three instalments, a serial in Honi Soit, Honi Soit of course being the university newspaper at Sydney University. So, I guess it's a bit late in the game…
David: It had a great title, though. It was called ‘Cockroach Weather’, which is... The February weather in Sydney which brings out... cockroach weather. I thought it was a great title. I ran out of story after three episodes, and let me tell you, I think there was some weeks between those episodes. It just died.
Astrid: So, there is no fiction in your future, is there?
David: Look, I don't think that way. As I said, I'm an explainer. I've worked that out. I don't think in terms of invented stories or invented characters.
Astrid: Do you read fiction?
David: I do read fiction. Not nearly as much as I should and not nearly as much as I did. But that's not how I think. And I look at colleagues of mine from journalism moving into fiction and how very rarely it succeeds. Sometimes wonderfully. I mean, Geraldine Brooks is a wonderful exception to the rule that journalists on the whole do not trust their own inventions. They trust fact. That's what gives them the certainty to write, to be precise and alive in their prose. They don't trust their own inventions, and so their novels tend to be muddy and careful. And their journalism can be brilliant, insightful, but they get careful in fiction. Isn't it strange? You would imagine that fiction allows you to be carefree. But if your whole career has been about uncovering, assessing and trusting fact, it's really hard then to trust your own inventions.
Astrid: Yes. Now, David, over the course of your career you have come in for an awful lot of public criticism. I teach writing at RMIT and so many students who are starting to put their non-fiction out into the world are scared of that public commentary, the blow back. As someone who has weathered the storms, what do you advise?
David: Well, I don't tweet and I'm not on Twitter and I don't read Twitter. I know that that cuts me off from a whole world of dialogue, but it also cuts me off from a whole world of pointless abuse and I just... And when writers talk to me about the pain they experience from Twitter responses, I just am tremendously harsh and unsympathetic. I say, ‘Well, get off Twitter. Leave it alone’. Most of the really toughest criticism that I've faced has been delivered quite bluntly from news corporations, and I really only discovered it when I was presenting Media Watch. And Media Watch meant criticism not only of the ABC, Fairfax publications, Channel Seven, Channel Nine, but also of course criticism of News Limited. And News Limited can't take it. It just can't take it. And the response to uncovering bad journalism and bad behaviour amongst its writers and columnists was to open me up to the charge that I was some kind of dangerous radical. Those of my friends who truly are dangerous radicals have thought this a huge joke ever since.
And I must say, I found it quite tough at first. But then I realise, it's just an instinctive response to being criticised, and the bigger lesson of it is not to respond. I did respond a bit at first. I did do quite a lot of arguing for myself, and I'm not sure that much of that had much point. But that seems to have died away now because I'm no longer... I no longer, and haven't for some 20 years or something, had a weekly television show in which I was occasionally critical of conservative newspapers and conservative television stations. But my writing itself, beyond politics, has come in for some hefty criticism, and some of that is very useful. I hope I've grown and learned from it. But you just never quite know what's coming next. Writing is like going out on a tightrope, and if you put too many nets under you and if you don't take the rope high enough, or if you shuffle out there apologetically, it just fails. Every time you've got to go out onto that wire and do what you can to dance.
Astrid: David, that is just beautiful advice. Thank you very much.
David: Thank you.